Those of you who missed The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay back in 2004 may find it hard to understand why a licensed summer action movie tie-in--starring Vin Diesel of all people and coming from a then-unknown Swedish developer--was so damn impressive at the time. Riddick came pretty much out of the blue and defied all the expectations of its pedigree with a brilliant mixture of shooting, stealth, light platforming and dialog-based adventure elements, and the most vicious, in-your-face first-person melee combat I've seen before or since. It also happened to be one of the year's best-looking and most shockingly yet believably brutal games. Escape From Butcher Bay was a real class act in its own right; the double whammy of its unheralded arrival and its brazen defiance of the crappy-movie-game curse truly made it one for the record books.
Sorry, I get a little misty thinking about how good that game really was in its day.
Now it's five years later, and if you didn't play Butcher Bay the first time around, Starbreeze and Atari are giving you the chance to join Riddick in his escape from the galaxy's hardest slam in a modern context with the new repackaging Assault on Dark Athena. This is a generous piece of content, since it not only contains the entirety of Butcher Bay touched up in high definition and with a few minor graphical improvements, but also an entirely new quasi-sequel episode that takes place directly after the end of the original game. There's a smattering of multiplayer modes here too that range from decent to unnecessary, but which honestly didn't even need to be in here to make this package recommendable to fans of mature, violent action games.
What really hooked me in the original Butcher Bay is how thoroughly and convincingly it immersed you in the role of the galaxy's baddest mother-effer Richard B. Riddick and his utterly grim, fatalistic world. From the moment the bounty hunter Johns (Cole Hauser, in his role from Pitch Black) and the head guard Abbot (played by Xzibit--yeah, the rapper) lead you through the gates of the prison, you're really in that world. You don't just start shooting and slashing your way to freedom; you have to integrate into the prison's hierarchy, wheeling and dealing with the other inmates for favors, for shivs and other makeshift weapons, for information. You spend nearly as much time sneaking through the guards' quarters or engaged in well-written conversations with prisoners as you do sneaking up on people and snapping their necks, or doing the old run-and-gun thing. The game's cast is literally dozens of characters strong, all with unique faces, voices, and personalities, and Riddick's arguably the best of them. He's an amazingly deadpan, badass character, and like him or not, Vin Diesel's throaty delivery really brings him to life from one excellent one-liner to the next.
Those kinds of narrative and environmental aspects are timeless, and they carry over into the Assault on Dark Athena episode which picks up directly after you (spoiler!) escape from Butcher Bay in the first game. Riddick is captured by a mercenary ship aboard which the nefarious crew is creating a legion of armed techno-zombie drones from its prisoners. So, of course, you end up fighting a ton of both mercs and the less intelligent drones throughout this campaign. There are plenty of memorable characters anchoring the story here, including the ship's hard-ass captain Revas (Michelle Forbes, who I'll always remember as Ensign Ro Laren from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a fellow prisoner voiced by Lance Henriksen, of Aliens and plenty of other sci-fi movies and TV shows. (I don't know why most of the dudes in Riddick's world sound like they smoke three packs a day, but that's just one of the many elements that gives it such a hard edge.) The pacing in Dark Athena is less even than in Butcher Bay, but it's got that same gritty reality to it that makes it well worth playing from beginning to end.
If you're wondering why I keep doing that pretentious list-every-noteworthy-voice-actor-and-their-non-game-credits thing like I'm a movie critic, it's because those characters and plenty of others really are such standouts. Some of the one-on-one dialogue-tree sequences in Butcher Bay and even more so in Dark Athena--scenes that would be rote and boring in a lot of other games--are utterly gripping here due to the convincing realness of the scoundrels you're dealing with. These people are absolute scum who range from sociopaths to far worse. One prisoner in Dark Athena in particular got so under my skin with his disturbing behavior that I was both sickened and genuinely relieved when I had a chance to kill him. The game has among the best writing, voiceover, blocking, and character animation I've seen in this sort of game, and that makes these characters so unsettling and your interactions with them so riveting.
In gameplay terms, the Butcher Bay port in this package uses pretty much the exact same blueprint the original did in 2004, and the Assault on Dark Athena episode also relies on those same mechanics, though it uses them in different proportions. The former reins in the shooting, giving the stealth and the lulls in the action room to breathe. Dark Athena leans more heavily on shooting and wasn't quite as engrossing for me for that reason. Both of the games still play quite well after all this time, though it's important to remember going into this package that a lot has changed in five years in terms of game design. Some aspects of the controls and your interactions with enemies feel a little antiquated at times compared to fresher games. The shooting isn't as refined as you might want, and the AI can act a little goofy when you disable lights to give yourself more darkness to hide in. Despite occasional moments of frustration, though, both halves of the Riddick whole offer a gameplay experience that's noticeably different from other first-person games on the market, even today.
At any rate, it must be a credit to Butcher Bay's excellence that its gameplay holds up five years later as well as it does. The same goes for the graphics, which were way ahead of their time in 2004 and still stack up to other recent games in high definition now. Dark Athena does look a bit better than Butcher Bay, though the older game still looks way more than serviceable too. More than anything, it's important to know that nothing here looks like a port from the last hardware generation.
I remember a minor outcry going up back when the first game came out about its lack of multiplayer. I've never understood the idea that every first-person action game should have a multiplayer mode; Butcher Bay was a great single-player experience and multiplayer didn't even need to enter the equation. Nevertheless, you get plenty of online action here. The most interesting mode is Pitch Black, where one player as Riddick uses the eyeshine ability to kill mercs armed with flashlights in a completely dark level. Kill Riddick, become him. This mode is cool in concept but can be hit-or-miss in practice; since there's only one Riddick, you can go several rounds without ever seeing him or getting to shoot at anything, so it sometimes devolves into a lot of blind flashlight-waving. The other modes are inspired by game types you've seen in other shooters. There's a Rocket Arena-style one-on-one or two-on-two mode, and a Counter-Strike-style three-way team battle where you buy gear before each round and deliver a crucial item to a score point. And of course, look for standard Capture the Flag and deathmatch types. But again, the shooting isn't in the same league as games like Call of Duty, so I didn't get a lot out of the multiplayer here.
The real attraction in this package is the one-two punch of Butcher Bay and Dark Athena, which combined will take you quite a while to complete and offer plenty of value on their own. This game went through some turmoil when previous publisher Vivendi shed some of its projects after the Activision merger, but I'm glad Atari swooped in to save the day and I'm glad the developer took the initiative to revive Butcher Bay and give it such a thorough spit-shine in the first place. The more people who get to find out what made--and still makes--Riddick special, the better.